Volume 1, Home Education, pg 224-226It is good to store a lot of poetry in a child's memory, and it doesn't have to take any work to learn it. A few years ago I visited a lady who was raising her niece using her own educational approach. She handed me an oversized sheet of writing paper with the names of poems. Some were long, difficult poems, such as Tintern Abbey. She said that her niece could repeat any of them that I wanted, yet she had never consciously attempted to learn a single verse by heart. The girl did repeat several of the poems on the list, quite beautifully and without stumbling. Then the lady told me her secret. She thought she had stumbled on an amazing discovery, and I agreed. Here's what she would do. She would read a poem all the way through to the girl. The next day, while the girl was sewing a doll's dress or something, she would read it again. She might read it the next day while brushing the girl's hair. She would get in maybe six days of this, depending on the length of the poem, reading the poem at various times, once during each day. And after a few days, the girl could say the poem that she 'had not learned.'
I've tried this often since then, and it does work. The child must not make a conscious effort to say the verses over to himself. Instead, the important thing is to have a mind open to freely receive an interesting impression. Six times of hearing a poem should be enough to have possession of it. Poems such as 'Dolly and Dick,' 'Do you ask what the birds say?' 'Little lamb, who made thee?' are perfect for this. The benefit of learning this way is that the child doesn't start to dislike a poem because of he's tired of it. Also, the habit of forming mental images is developed without the child even being aware of it.
I once discussed this with author Anna Sedgewick while we were talking about Browning. She said that a lady, her niece, had been recovering from a long illness and wasn't allowed to do anything but rest. So, for something to occupy her time, she read Lycidas all the way through. She was surprised the next day to find herself repeating long passages to herself from memory. So she tried the whole poem and found that she was able to recite the whole thing, after a single reading. She hadn't learned it before her illness. She had never even read it with particular attention. She was thrilled with her new talent, and decided to test herself. She read Paradise Lost, a book at a time, and had the same result--she could repeat it all after a single reading! She enriched herself by reading many other works while she recovered. But as she got stronger and started doing more things, her mind had more to think about and she lost her amazing ability. Perhaps a child's mind has less preoccupations and is freer to absorb and retain lovely images clothed in beautiful words, like the lady recovering from her illness. But don't forget, even unconscious brain activity puts wear and tear on the brain tissue, so don't over-do it. Don't start until age six; until then, let the child's mind lay fallow. Then, when you do start, attempt only a little. The poems learned should be simple and within his interest and understanding. Don't overwhelm the child, but don't waste the opportunity, either. There is so much noble poetry that a child can grasp, don't waste his time filling his mind with twaddle.
Volume 1, Home Education, pg 227
Children should also get some practice in reading aloud, mostly from their school books. Poetry should be included because that will get him used to the subtle nuances of meaning and open his awareness to the intrinsic beauty of words in and of themselves. Words should be a source of pleasure. They are worth our respect, and beautiful words deserve to be spoken beautifully, with clear tones and precise pronunciation. Very young children will pick up on this by example, by hearing well-written works read aloud sometimes.
Volume 2, Parents and Children, pg 141-149
'My goal in this book is to present the beauty and joy of living, the beauty and blessedness of death, the glory of battle and adventure, the nobility of being devoted to a cause or ideal or even a passion, the dignity of resistance, the sacred quality of patriotism,' says the editor of Lyra Heroica in the preface to his book. We all feel like children's education should make free use of works that express 'simpler feelings and more fundamental emotions.' We all believe that heroic poetry contains inspiration to noble living that can't be found much of anywhere else. We also know that it's only the young who are able to fully experience the free expression of these fundamental emotions in song. When we consider using our own British ballads, we find that there are plenty of them, but they're too dedicated to limited occasions, and too disconnected. Although we'd prefer for our children to develop patriotism and heroism from the same resource, we don't think it's do-able.
We claim that there isn't any truly British material for this kind of education, so we fall back on Homer's mythical Iliad and Odyssey, using one of the graceful, exciting versions written for children.
But what if we had our own Homer, our own Ulysses? Mr. Stopford Brooke has discovered that we do! That's a great discovery for those of us who tend to look at everything from the child's perspective. He might not be happy if he found out that his book, History of Early English Literature, which is a valuable addition to students' and scholars' libraries, is being used as mental food for very young children. Still, this is what we've needed for a long time. Beowulf has the fundamental emotions and heroic adventures of the early English people written as a story in verse form. It's as strange and eerie as the wildest fairy tale, yet every line contains the distinctly British temper, and the British virtue that are necessary ingredients in making heroes. Beowulf isn't exactly English, but he lived in the place that the English originally came from. He was adopted as England's national hero very early in history, and his feats were sung in every hall.
Stopford Brooke says that the poem has 3283 lines and is divided into two parts with a fifty year gap in the middle. The first part tells about Beowulf's great deeds against the monster Grendel and his mother. The second part tells about Beowulf defeating the Fire-drake, and his death and burial. Brooke says that we're justified in claiming the poem as English--the poem is only preserved in the English language, and only in England. The hero Beowulf is born of brave, noble parents. He's a combination of gentleness and superhuman daring. When he arrives at Hrothgar's hall to conquer Grendel, we hear as much about his wise advise as we do about his strength. The queen begs him to be friendly in advising her sons. She says, 'Your faith is patient, and your strength is wise. You will be a comfort to your people, and a help to heroes.' It was said that no one could manage matters more wisely than he could. Later, as he's dying, he looks back on his life. What he thinks the most about isn't his great war deeds. He thinks more about his patience, his wisdom, his power to control himself, and his ability to avoid making enemies.
He says, 'Each of us has to wait for the end of our life. The person who can should earn honor during his life. That's the best thing for a warrior after he's dead. But everyone should be patient in difficult times. That's what I want from you.' That's the philosophy of this early hero whose deeds, whether legendary or not, were done in the early centuries after Christ, before Christianity had been spread to the northern tribes [Vikings?]
Beowulf was as gentle as Lord Nelson, and he had Nelson's iron will. When he took on a task, he accomplished it without any thought except finishing it. He knew no fear, and, like Nelson, he seems to have been able to inspire his men with his own courage. 'I broke no promises,' he said as he lay dying. He also stayed honorable by being faithful to his lord, the king. While he had any life within him, he defended his king, even when he was alone and on foot at the battle. Even after the king died, he stayed loyal, even though it wasn't in his best interest to do so. When the kingdom was offered to him, he turned it down and, instead, trained the king's son Heardreg in war and educated him. He guarded him kindly with honor, and avenged him when he was killed. He was generous and gave away all the gifts he received. He was courteous and even gave gifts to people who had been rude to him. He was always gentle and serious with women. Most of all, he was faithful and honorable in war, as this quote shows: 'this is how a man acts when he wants to earn praise that never ends, and doesn't cherish his life in battle.' He cries, 'Let's have either fame or death!' When Wiglaf comes to his aid against the dragon and finds him surrounded in the dragon's fire, he reminds him of his life goal:
'Beowulf, beloved, bear yourself well. When you were young, you used to say that you would never let honor go. Now you're strong in deeds and your soul is firm, my prince. Guard your life with every bit of strength you have left; I'm coming to help you.' Brooke says, 'These are the qualities that this man and hero had. I thought it was worthwhile to focus on them because they represent the English ideal, the kind of manhood that English people valued even before they came to Britain. And, in all of our histories for the 1200 years since Beowulf, these qualities have been repeated in the lives of the English warriors we honor most, whether they fought on land or sea.'
'But Beowulf doesn't only present the concept of a hero. He also presents the concept of a king, a fair ruler, a wise politician, and a defender of his own people, even when defending them cost him his very life. Beowulf is 'a good king, the people's governor, a beloved ruler, a guardian of his land during war, an adventurer who wins treasure for the needs of his people, a hero who thinks about his sailors while he's dying, a gentle and fierce warrior, who is buried while his people weep for him.' '
We should be grateful to Stopford Brooke for making Beowulf's heroic ideal accessible to those who haven't learned to appreciate it. But what were we thinking to have neglected it for more than a thousand years when it could have been inspiring our youth with a noble impulse? Someone may protest, 'But we already have lots of English heroes; we don't need to drag one out of the long-buried past.' Yes, it's true that we do have heroes galore that we're proud of, but for some reason, they've never been put into the kind of song that touches the hearts of children and uneducated people.
Tennyson has given us our image of Arthur, and Shakespeare has given us our image of Henry the Fifth. But I think that parents will discover that their children's souls are more touched by Beowulf than with either of these, probably because children can most easily relate to a nation's earliest history, and Beowulf belongs to a period of history that goes back even earlier than Arthur. We hope that Brooke will someday provide the entire poem with children in mind, interspersed with his enlightening comments, like we have here. The quaint metre he uses gives the reader a feeling of an ancient time, successfully carrying the reader back to the long-ago age of the poem.
We've already used a lot of quotes from the History of Early English Literature, but a longer quote might give a better idea of what the book is like, and show how helpful it can be to parents. The two volumes are rather expensive, but the cost is well worth it if even one single child is passionately inspired to imitate heroic qualities when he hears:
'Now the poem gets more action-packed as Beowulf sails to the Danish coast. Our hero Beowulf has heard that Hrothgar, the chief of the Danes, is tormented by Grendel, a man-eating monster. Whenever Hrothgar's warriors go to sleep in Heorot, the great hall he has built, Grendel seizes them, tears them to pieces, and eats them. 'I will save the king,' thought Beowulf, when he heard the tale from the roving seamen. 'I will go over the swan sea to seek Hrothgar. He needs more men.' His comrades urged him to undertake the adventure, and fifteen of them were even willing to fight it out with him. Among the rest was a sea-wise man who knew the ocean-paths. Their ship lay drawn up on the beach, under a high cliff. Then--
'The heroes with all their gear
Stepped into the ship, while the ocean waves
Whirled the sea against the sand. To the ship, to its breast.
Then expensive bright, carved things carried the heroes
And the well-organized armor. So the men pushed off
Towards the adventure they wanted. Their tight ship
Went over the waves swiftly, with a suitable wind,
Flying like a bird, floating with the ocean foam all around it,
Till about the same time, on the second day,
The up-curved prow had traveled so far,
That at last the seamen saw the land ahead,
And shining sea-cliffs, soaring peaks,
Broad peninsulas. So the Sailor of the Sea
Reached the end of his sea voyage.'
Beowulf, I. 211
'This was the voyage, ending in a bay with two high sea-capes at its entrance. This is the same kind of scenery as they left at home. When Beowulf returns over the sea, the boat groans as it is pushed forth because it's so heavily loaded. The hollow space under the mast that holds up the single sail is holding eight horses, swords, treasure and expensive armor. The sail is hoisted, the wind pushes the ship through the foam and waves, until they see the well-known Geats' Cliffs. The wind blows them up to the sand. The 'harbor-guard who had been watching out across the sea for them, longing for their return'--this is one of the poem's many human touches--'fastens chains to anchor the wide-bodied ship to the land so that the wind doesn't sweep the ship away.' The shore is low at one end of this bay, so Beowulf drives the ship there, stem first. Planks are pushed out on both sides of the prow for the Weder men to disembark. They step off the ship and tie up their sea-wood, their armor clanging as they move. Then they thank their gods for the easy battle victory . . . Above them, on the ridge, the guard from the coast of the Scyldings sits on his horse, watching the strangers carrying their bright shields over the sides of the ship to the shore. He wondered, and rode down to the shore, waving his heavy spear and calling,
'Who are you, you with your weapons,
Wearing coats of mail? Whose ship is it
That you have sailed over the ocean
Here on the high sea?
* * * *
'I never saw an Earl
Who was greater than your leader,
A hero on his horse. He's not one to stay home.
If he's anything like he looks, he's impressive with his weapons
And has an air of nobility!'
Beowulf, II. 237-247.
'Beowulf answers that he's a friend of Hrothgar's and that he's come to free him from 'Grendel, the mysterious enemy who stalks in the dark of night.' He pities Hrothgar, who's old and good. As he speaks, the thought of Wyrd comes to his mind, and he doubts that Hrothgar will be able to avoid sorrow. He says, 'If sorrow would only leave him, if only relief would come, if only his burden of anxiety would be lightened.' The coastguard gives him direction to Hrothgar's and promises to watch the ship. They go up a hilly ridge. Heirot is on the other side of the hill.'
The History of the Early English Literature talks about some other pleasant things. Here are a couple of examples of the riddles that the old bards used to tell. It's in riddle and song that we get the most vivid images of the life, thoughts, ways and words of our ancient forefathers. We tend to picture them as rough and wild, but they're portrayed here as gentle, kind and generous. They're the kind of people that we, their descendants, are proud to honor.
1. This is Cynewulf's Riddle of the Sword:
I'm a wondrous thing created for battle,
Decorated beautifully by my beloved Lord.
My armor is multi-colored and a clasping wire
Glitters around the gem of death that my owner gave me.
He spurs me on, I'm quite a traveler.
I go with him to conquest.
Then I carry treasure,
Cold above the walled garden, through the glittering day.
I'm the handiwork of smiths! Many times I extinguish
Living men with battle edges! A king clothes me
With his jewels and silver, honors me in the banquet hall,
Lavishes praise on me! He boasts about what I can do
As he feasts and drinks mead with the many heroes.
He restrains himself and sheaths me, then he lets me loose again
Far and wide, to rush along. I am weary from long journeys,
Most cursed of all weapons.'
2. The Helmet Speaks:
I suffer misery
Wherever the spear-carrier takes me!
Streams of rain beat down on me and I still stand.
The hard pellets of hail hit me, the cold frost covers me,
And the flying snowflakes fall all over me.'
(Riddle lxxix. 6-10.)
I don't need to say how literary and important Brooke's great book is. 'There is nothing like genuine leather,' and parents are able to see the educational value in almost anything. This book is truly a treasure-chest.
Volume 3, School Education Education, pg 67
To make sure that the history we teach seems more real to the children, we also use some of the literature from the same historical era, and the best historical fiction and poetry about that period. And we do the same with other subjects.
Volume 3, School Education Education, pg 121
Just the other day I heard someone say that children don't like poetry, that they prefer an exciting story told in prose. I have no doubt that they like the story, but poetry does appeal to children, although in other ways. Shelley's Skylark will captivate a child sooner than any touching tale.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 72
We also must not put the focus of children's education on drama--even when it's Shakespeare--or poetry--even when it's beautiful, lyrical poetry. Yes, children need these things, but they come into the world waiting to connect with lots of different things.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 125
We forget that Jesus said, 'Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' Some of those words are the truths clothed in religion, poetry, art, scientific discovery, and literary expression. These are the things by which we live, and in which our spirit flourishes. Spiritual life and growth needs ideas for its food, like the body needs bread every day.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 157
The best thoughts of mankind have been archived in literature, and, at its highest level, as poetry or art, which is poetry in a solid form.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 166-167
The Son of Man would be lifted up and would draw all men to Himself. Poetic verse provides a fresh way to present the themes of scripture. Poetry is less personal, more concise and can be treated more reverently than prose. What Wordsworth called 'authentic comment' can be included more subtly. The Gospels vividly show us scenes of many people in their moment of coming face to face with Christ, and poetry allows a more dramatic yet restrained portrayal of those moments than prose.
'Shakespeare gave us a couple of lines from Scripture's great epic, a taste of what poetic presentation might be like:
'Those holy fields
Over whose acres walked those blessed feet
Which fourteen hundred years ago were nailed
For our advantage to the bitter cross.'
-- from King Henry IV
If only Shakespeare had written poetry about the whole Bible! Every line he wrote dealing with Christ from the unique perspective and personality of his pen is a treasure.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 182
In IIB (fourth grade) they read their own geography, history, and poetry.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 193
In Forms III and IV (grades 7-9), composition is still the natural narrations of a free use of carefully scheduled books and still requires no specific attention until the student is old enough to become interested on his own in analyzing and using words. Children enjoy the cadence of poetry as much as adults, and many can write poetry as easily as prose. The exercise of making their narration concise and weighty enough for verse is a great mental challenge. But keep in mind that, although rhythm and accent can be learned by merely reading poetry, knowledge of metrical patterns needs to be learned if one is going to write poetry.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 274
We study English history in every grade. But in the earliest years, it's studied alone. We know from experience that it's not always possible to get the perfect book, so we use the best one we can find and supplement it with the best literary essays from the historical period. Literature hardly even seems like a separate subject because it's so closely associated with the term's world or English history. It might be a first-hand document or a story to teach a little about the time period. It's amazing how much actual knowledge children get when the thoughts and ideas from a time period are meshed with their study of the same time period's political and social developments. I'd like to make a point about the way poetry helps us to understand the thoughts and ideas of a time period--including our own. Every age, every era, has its own poetry that captures the soul and spirit of the time. It's a wonderful thing for a generation to have someone like Shakespeare, Dante, Milton or Burns to collect and preserve its essence as a gift for generations to come.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 303-304
A person needs a good meal to stimulate his body to secrete digestive juices. In the same way, the mental energy need to be stimulated so that the mind will digest and extract what it needs. And it needs a large variety and generous amount from which to select the nourishment it needs. And it needs it to be disguised as something appetizing and appealing. As our example, we have the highest authority [Scripture] demonstrating that the indirect method is the best way to dispense literature, and especially the indirect form of poetry.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 317
Maybe it's true that the church doesn't feed us enough of the knowledge that gives life, but we aren't starved, either. We also get a small share of literature, poetry, and history--a phrase here, a line there, just enough to light up our day once in a while. Charles Fox said, 'Poetry is everything,' and the black conqueror of the Sudan said, 'Without learning, life wouldn't have any pleasure or flavor.' Knowledge is good for us, although we aren't sure why that's true.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 328
That key is knowledge--familiarity enough with birds and flowers and trees to know them by name, if not more. And the magic of poetry makes knowledge come to life. Adults and children should be able to quote a verse that will make the bud of an ash tree seem blacker, or add sweetness and wonder to a 'flower in the crannied wall,' or make a lark's song sound more thrilling.
Volume 6, Philosophy of Education, pg 340-341
Readings in literature, whether prose or poetry, should generally illustrate the historical period being studied. But books containing selected portions of works should be avoided. Children should read the whole work they're introduced to. And here we have a serious difficulty. Plato wanted poets in his republic to be watched over lest they write poems that would corrupt the morals of the youth. When the floodgates of knowledge were thrown open in Europe, Erasmus was worried for the same reason. Even Rossetti had the same thought. I hope that publishers will help us in this regard. Ever since German bookseller Friedrich Perthes discovered the mission of publishers to further education, publishers have done a lot for the world. Might they help us now? They could remove the smallest bit of offensive material, under the guidance of an exacting expert. What peace of mind it would be for teachers to be able to throw open the world of books to their students with no fear of moral smudges left on students' minds from an offensive passage! And many people who don't feel comfortable in the world of literature would be happy to keep complete libraries of these editions on their shelves to be used daily with no worries.